Have you heard? My gosh, guys, have you heard? Britain’s population is ageing. Yes, ageing. It’s probably the most signific… sorry, what’s that? You have heard? You’ve heard little else for the past few decades? Oh well. Sometimes it’s still worth seeing the numbers for reassurance. The above chart shows how Britain’s population has aged over the past four decades, according to the Office for National Statistics’ census data. And also how it’s expected to age over the next four decades, according to the ONS’s official projections.
From 1976 to now. The bars for 1976 and 2016 may not look too dissimilar at first glance, but there are actually some substantial differences between them. 40 years ago, people aged under 40 accounted for well over half – 57.1 per cent – of the population. Now, they account for just under half, or 49.9 per cent. In the same time, the proportion of folk aged over 85 has more than doubled.
From here to eternity. And what of the future? Obviously, the bars that go on to 2056 are much less certain; resting, as they do, on a thousand assumptions. Yet, based on what’s happened already, the trends they depict are hard to deny. In 40 years, reckons the ONS, the proportion of under-40-year-olds will have dipped to 45.8 per cent. Meanwhile, those aged over 85 will occupy 7.3 per cent of the demographic structure – over seven times greater than their share in 1976.
Lessening the effects. Hence why the Office for Budget Responsibility’s own Book of Predictions – which uses these same ONS projections – is full of talk about an ageing population and its effects. In its words, “It is this ageing of the population that has the greatest impact on long-term prospects for the public finances.” Can that impact be lessened? There are ways, foremost among them immigration. The OBR provides an alternative projection that allows for higher net migration: “it shows how higher net migration boosts the working-age population (given the age structure of inward migrants) and also the number of children (given assumed age-specific fertility rates).”
Stay tuned. The prospect of an ageing population is almost as important as the ageing population itself. Should politicians be legislating for it now? Can the pressure on the public finances be eased in advance? Or is it just something that’s bound to happen? Questions, questions, questions – and an unsatisfying, stopgap response. We shall return to this subject, and that OBR document, in future To The Point posts.